Friday, April 6, 2018

“Mildred Pierce”: Revenge of the Waitress

There’s a long tradition of Hollywood hopefuls waiting tables while waiting for their big break. East Coast restaurants may boast waiters who’ve devoted their lives to deftly taking drink orders and serving plates of food. In SoCal, though, if you scratch a waiter (which I don’t recommend), you’ll find a young thespian who’d rather be playing Hamlet or Camille. If you’re served by someone who recites the nightly specials with a highly theatrical flair, you can be sure he or she has a make-or-break audition coming up soon.

On movie screens, most of the food-servers are female, and I can reel off a long list of films in which a waitress is at the center of the story. Think of Ellen Burstyn, winning an Oscar for playing a sassy but sensible waitress in 1974’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. (This Scorsese film lived on as a popular TV series.) Think of Keri Russell baking and serving pies in 1981’s Waitress, which has since evolved into a Broadway musical. Think of Julia Roberts and the other nubile young ladies toiling in a downhome pizza joint in 1988’s Mystic Pizza. Think of Brooke Adams slinging hash in the desert in 1992’s Gas Food Lodging. 

Back in the Golden Age, too, many female stars put on those little caps and aprons to play waitresses. At a time when most women didn’t work outside the home, there were few employment choices open to them, and there seemed a bit of sexy logic in associating females with perky uniforms and the serving of food to patrons who were alternately admiring and demanding. When I dropped in on a Michael Curtiz Festival, led by the always-interesting Alan Rode, at UCLA’s Billy Wilder Theatre, I was amused to discover that the glamorous Joan Crawford would be appearing in two Curtiz films in which she had to lower herself to wait tables before rising to the heights of business success. One was a 1949 steamy Southern film noir, Flamingo Road. The other, of course, is the Warner Bros. classic, Mildred Pierce, with Crawford winning an Oscar as an unhappy housewife who remakes herself first as a waitress and then as a budding entrepreneur in the restaurant trade, all to win the love of her heartless young daughter, Veda (Ann Blyth).  

As Alan points out in his fascinating Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film, the success of Mildred Pierce as a movie was by no means a sure bet. Yes, it was based on a work by James M. Cain, whose Double Indemnity stories and whose novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice, had enjoyed wild success as film adaptations. Unfortunately, Cain’s Mildred Pierce was both sordid and turgid: it required some creative thinking to give it the pizzazz that movie audiences craved. Producer Jerry Wald, stumped for a dramatic climax, concocted the idea of turning Mildred Pierce into a murder mystery, with a killing in the opening scene but the killer not identified until the end. Many hands, including that of William Faulkner, labored on the script. And many of Hollywood’s favorite leading ladies (Bette Davis among them) turned down the title role.  Crawford was available because MGM had let go of her contract, accusing her of being “box office poison.” Mildred Pierce was her chance for redemption, but working with the feisty Curtiz didn’t come easy. In what’s been called “the battle of the shoulder pads,” he rejected her usual elegant look and insisted she play the film’s early scenes as a frumpy hausfrau in a drab little cotton shirtwaist. The furs, of course, came later.

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